“Potential” is a word tossed around generally in music criticism as a mode to criticize a lackluster album from a talented band. With Murder by Death’s new album Red of Tooth and Claw, it can be used as a means to show how much the band members have exceeded expectations. Throughout its career, the band has continually been on the mark album-wise but has not created a truly “great” piece of art. There has been something missing, a phantom notion that listeners get in which they find themselves wanting the band to reach out and employ the elusive idea of “its potential” to make the album what it “could be.”
This has all changed with Murder by Death’s Vagrant Records debut. The band, a musical hybrid of Midwestern saloon rock and folk, has finally put the pieces together and shown what it is made of. It has developed from an atmospheric sound to one that expresses emotion, storytelling and depth that grips the listener from the explosive opening to the cataclysmic conclusion of the record.
The band, a four-piece that includes an excellent cello player, a solid rhythm section and infectious melodies that eschew fleeting catchiness in favor of deep songwriting abilities, does a great job creating the mood of the songs. There is acute attention to emotion in the songs’ music. The opening track “I’m Coming Home” is a charged musical assault in which singer Adam Turla ominously sings about a difficult return to his home. Other songs, such as “Spring Break 1899” and “Rumbrave” (the standout track on the album), convey wistful sorrow and a capacity for vengeance, respectively. The music cradles Turla’s voice, building and declining at appropriate moments.
The vocals, as previously mentioned, are the standout piece on this album. The comparisons Turla’s voice has garnered tend to put him as an amalgamation of Tom Waits and Johnny Cash. His styling accents the moods of each song in a way that creates a cohesive story in the songs. This is fortunate as the album is a concept described by the band as “an odyssey-like story, only without the honorable character in the story’s center.”
Musically speaking, the album hits its stride in a variety of ways. The music tends to revolve around the cello. It never outshines the other parts of the music, but it is noticeably pleasant to the ear and shapes the songs in ways that would otherwise suffer. On the whole, every instrument is arranged in a way that screams for attention; a perfect balance comes through to lay groundwork for the vocals.
The result provides for one of the most wholesome and equalized sounds present in the past few years in music. There isn’t one point where someone can criticize one instrument in favor of the other; it tends to blend in ways that most music falls flat.
As a result, the attention to atmosphere, emotion and lyrics rewards the listener twofold. Previously the band has tried to do this to moderate successes. The difference this time comes in the form of focus. Each song is admittedly short, which may lead some to criticize the band; however, a stellar lean is preferable to a longer and less rewarding listen.
Every point of this album has been well thought about and put together to create an organic and coherent piece of art. Although certain tracks may make more of an expression than others, the album in its entirety is where the focus needs to be. This is the album Murder by Death was always capable of making finally being delivered, and it’s a welcome and refreshing storm in a musical world where more of the same has been receiving the most attention. Take notice now, because Murder by Death is here to stay and once it grabs hold of your ears, you won’t feel right letting the album out of your sight.